Green New Deal Part 2: How do we get to net-zero carbon emissions?

Apr 14 JDN 2458588

I said in my post last week that the Green New Deal has “easy parts”, “hard parts”, and “very hard parts”, and discussed one of the “easy parts”: increased investment in infrastructure. Next week I’ll talk about another “easy part”, guaranteeing education and healthcare.

Today is the most important “hard part”: Reducing our net carbon emissions to zero—or even less.

“Meeting 100 percent of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources.”

“Overhauling transportation systems in the United States to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector as much as is technologically feasible, including through investment in – (i) zero-emission vehicle infrastructure and manufacturing; (ii) clean, affordable, and accessible public transportation; and (iii) high-speed rail.”

“Spurring massive growth in clean manufacturing in the United States and removing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from manufacturing and industry as much as is technologically feasible.”

“Working collaboratively with farmers and ranchers in the United States to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector as much as is technologically feasible.”

There have been huge expansions in solar and wind power generation, which are now cheaper than coal, nuclear, and hydroelectric, on a par with natural gas, and only outcompeted by geothermal. As a result of this dramatic increase in renewable energy production, electric power is no longer the largest source of carbon emissions in the United States; it is now second to transportation.
Policy clearly matters here: While total US carbon emissions were trending downward during the Obama administration, they began trending back upward once Trump took office. Even under Obama, they were not trending down fast enough to realistically meet the Paris Agreement targets. Only 14 states are on track to meet those targets, and they are all hard-Blue states except for Virginia and North Carolina. Unsurprisingly, the most carbon-efficient states are New York and California; yet even our emissions (about 9 tonnes per person per year, about twice the world average) are still far too high.
Of course the US is not alone in failing to meet the targets; in the EU, only three countries (Sweden, France, and Germany) are on track to hit the Paris targets. How did they do it? Germany has managed to do it mainly by expanding wind power, but for most countries, the fastest route to zero-carbon electricity is clearly nuclear power.
Germany has been foolishly phasing out their nuclear capacity, but it’s still 11% of their generation; Sweden’s grid is 40% nuclear; and France has a whopping 72% of their grid on nuclear (no other country comes close). The US grid is about 20% nuclear, which isn’t bad; but if California for instance had not phased out half of our nuclear generation since 2001, we could have taken out 15,000 GWh/yr of natural gas generation instead. At least we did basically eliminate coal and oil power in California, so that’s good.
How much would it cost to convert the entire US electricity grid to renewables and nuclear by 2050? Estimates vary widely, but a good ballpark figure is about $20 trillion.
Let’s not kid ourselves: That is a lot. It’s almost an entire year of the whole US economy. It would be enough to establish a permanent fund to end world hunger almost ten times over. Inflation-adjusted, it’s five times the total amount spent by the US in the Second World War.
Completely re-doing our entire electricity generation system is a project on a scale we’ve really never attempted before. It would be very difficult and very expensive.
But is it feasible? Yes, it’s entirely feasible. Assuming our real GDP grows at a paltry 2% per year between now and 2050, the total economic output of the United States during that period will be almost $1 quadrillion. $20 trillion is only 2% of that. Since the top 1% get about 20% of the income, this means that we could raise enough revenue for this project by simply raising the tax rate on the top 1% by 10 percentage points—which would still make the top income tax rate substantially lower than what we had as recently as the 1970s.
Unfortunately, converting the electricity grid is only part of the story. We also need to make radical changes in our transportation system—switching from airplanes to high-speed rail, and converting cars either to electric cars or public transit systems. Trains are really the best bet, but rail systems have a high up-front cost to build.
Even state-of-the-art high-speed rail systems just can’t be a jet airliner for speed. The best high-speed rail systems can cruise at about 250 kph, while a cruising Boeing 737 can easily exceed 800 kph. We’re just going to have to get used to our long-distance trips taking longer. Even 250 kph is a lot better than the 100 kph you’d probably average driving (not counting stops), which is also about the speed that most current US trains get—far worse than what they have in Europe or even China.
Then we have to deal with the other sources of carbon emissions, like manufacturing and agriculture. It’s simply not realistic to expect that we will actually produce zero carbon emissions; instead our goal needs to be net zero, which means we’ll need some way of pulling carbon out of the air.
To some extent, this is easier than it sounds: Reforestation is a very easy, efficient way of pulling carbon out of the air. Unfortunately it is also very slow, and can only be done in appropriate climates. To really pull enough carbon out of the air fast enough, we’re going to need industrial carbon sequestration or some form of geoengineering—right now iron seeding looks like the most promising candidate, but it could only compensate for about 1/6 of current carbon emissions. Solar geoengineering could do more—but at a very high cost, since we’re talking about pumping poisonous chemicals into the air in order to block out sunlight.
The reason we need to do this is essentially that we have waited too long: Had we started the process of converting the whole grid to renewables in the 1970s like we should have, we wouldn’t need such desperate measures now. But we didn’t, so here we are.
Estimates of how much it will cost to do all this vary even more widely, to the point where I’m hesitant to even put a number on it. But it seems likely that in addition to the $20 trillion for the electric grid, it will probably be something like another $30 trillion to do everything else that is necessary. But the global damage from climate change is estimated to be as much as $3.3 trillion per yearso a total of over $100 trillion over 30 years. Spending $50 trillion to save $100 trillion doesn’t sound like such a bad deal, does it?

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